Lexus has improved its CT200h hybrid to try and tempt more buyers in the compact executive segment over to petrol/electric power. It's now quieter, more comfortable, better equipped and more efficient. Jonathan Crouch checks it out
Ten Second Review
Lexus' CT200h may have been the world's first full hybrid luxury compact car back at its launch in 2011 but the signs were even then that it wouldn't be the last. Sure enough, BMW and more recently Mercedes have quickly followed its lead, though with much pricier contenders that are really better matched against the Japanese brand's slightly more sophisticated IS300h model, also lately launched to make this CT's job that bit harder. So the entry-level Lexus has had to polish up its act, becoming smarter, quieter, better equipped and more efficient in the revised guise we're looking at here.
Hybrid power may be a trendy thing to have in the compact executive segment right now but it certainly isn't a cheap option. You'll need a budget of around £40,000 for the BMW 3 Series or Mercedes C-Class options and even Lexus' own IS300h is a £30,000 car. Hence the appeal of the brand's entry-level CT200h model, which starts from well under £25,000, even if it's well specified. That's possible because this car runs on humbler Toyota Prius underpinnings - mechanicals which are awarded more of a premium sheen with the adoption of the Lexus badge, especially in this much improved model. 'CT' stands for 'Compact Tourer', Lexus-speak for 'Premium Hatchback', the class of car that sits below the 3 Series and C-Class segment that Lexus attacks with its IS model. Think models like Audi's A3, BMW's 1 Series, Mercedes' A-Class - maybe even Alfa Romeo's Giulietta and you'll get the idea. Cars that are no bigger than something Focus or Astra-sized but sit a world apart when it comes to perceived driveway cred. None of them offer a hybrid option - which is where this Lexus ought to score. The original version of the CT200h ought to have done quite well for its brand but was held back somewhat by gawky looks, an over-firm ride and running costs that didn't really offer much of an advantage over a good diesel alternative. Hence the need for this sleeker, more comfortable and more efficient version.
Press the 'Start' button and the virtual silence is very, very different from the ugly, grumbly diesel note delivered by this car's competitors. That's because from start-up to speeds of up to 28mph or for distances of up to a mile and a half, the car (in theory anyway) is supposed to automatically operate in 'EV' mode under electric power alone. This brings me to the engine which, despite all this talk of electric power, will remain this car's primary source of propulsion in day-to-day use. It's exactly the same 1.8-litre VVTi petrol unit you'll find in Toyota's Prius and contributes a further 99bhp to the 82bhp already delivered by the electric motor, though never at the same time, which is why, slightly confusingly, the total power output of this car is quoted at 134bhp. Once you're up and running with battery and petrol power chipping in and out, there's a centre drive controller which you can set either to 'NORMAL', 'ECO' or 'SPORT', depending on how you want to drive. The 'SPORT' setting delivers an extra 150V of extra electric motor power to enable a rest to sixty sprint time of 10.3s as engine revs are held longer, throttle and steering response sharpened and the traction and stability control systems rendered less intrusive. On the move, revised suspension settings should improve body control, while more extensive NVH suppression measures should help refinement. The rather over-firm ride of the original version should also be improved thanks to re-tuned suspension. Lexus has also remapped with hybrid drive system's transmission control. This allows for a more linear build-up of engine revs, more closely matching the increase in vehicle speed. The result is a driving experience more akin to a conventional automatic transmission.
Design and Build
Lexus's signature spindle grille provides a strong focus for the CT200h's refreshed styling. It has been reworked with the centre horizontal line pushed further forward with its "pinch-point" set lower down. The bottom corners of the spindle shape are also spaced further apart, adding to the overall effect of reinforcing the car's low front profile and wide track. As before, the cabin of this car embarrasses most rival premium German efforts. I love the cockpit-like feel of the low-set, perfectly-sited driving position and the way all the controls fall neatly to hand and operate with a quality click .The smarter 370mm diameter steering wheel is now the same as that featured in the latest Lexus IS and the Optitron instrument binnacle is available with an integral 4.2-inch TFT screen, which can be linked to the car's multimedia system and controlled using switches on the steering wheel. The multimedia screen has been made thinner and the second generation Remote Touch Interface controller has been revised with a more user-friendly push-action enter-command switch. Plus the Lexus Media Display and Lexus Premium Navigation system have been made easier to operate with better hands-free and voice recognition functions. The display can be operated using a new controller mounted on the centre console. But I haven't yet touched upon practicality, something you'd expect to be compromised by the need to find somewhere to stow the hybrid system's nickel-metal-hydride battery pack. As it turns out, clever packaging of this unit between the rear wheels means that it takes up very little bootspace, the 375-litre luggage bay actually being larger than that offered in a BMW 1 Series. Push forward to 60:40 split-folding rear seats and up to 985-litres of space is freed up. As for rear seat room, well if you're tempted to complain, then you clearly haven't sat in the back of a rival BMW 1 Series or Audi A3 very recently.
Market and Model
As before, prices sit in the £21,000 to £30,000 bracket and towards the top of the range, there's a more dynamic-looking 'F-Sport' version with a sportier look but no mechanical changes. This variant has been upgraded with aluminium pedals, scuff plates and perforated leather steering wheel and shift lever trim. Thoughout the line-up, equipment levels have been improved but whichever CT200h model you choose, you'll find plenty fitted as standard. 17" alloy wheels, Bluetooth compatibility for your mobile 'phone, USB compatibility for the stereo and rain sensing wipers are all included. Plus there's rear privacy glass, a high quality 6-speaker CD stereo, a leather-covered steering wheel, dual-zone climate control and UV-glare-reducing windows. It's a bit surprising perhaps to find that sat nav is standard only at the top of the range, but to be fair, it's quite some system controlled by a unique mouse-driven keypad. Safety-wise, a 5 star Euro NCAP showing is justified by the inclusion of no fewer than eight airbags, including knee protection for driver and passengers. Plus of course, it goes without saying that the CT has the full complement of electronic braking, stability and traction controls.
Cost of Ownership
Cost of ownership is where the CT200h can really hurt its conventionally-powered rivals. True, you'll need to take the official combined consumption figure of 68.9mpg with a pinch of salt - achievable but not in the real world - but even given that, you shouldn't be disappointed with returns at least the equal of the best diesel competition. Throw in the fact that this is the only premium executive car with automatic transmission to be exempt from the London congestion charge, plus what's almost certain to be a snail-like rate of depreciation and the running cost package looks even more compelling. The parallel hybrid technology employed here might be fairly conventional - we're on the cusp of a transition to plug-in lithium ion batteries - but that's probably a good thing as it's fully proven and, in any case, protected by a 5 year/60,000 mile warranty. It's certainly good enough to deliver an astonishing CO2 emissions figure that, thanks to revised 15-inch wheels and a more efficient rear spoiler, has now been improved by 5g/km to just 82g/km in base S-grade form with 15-inch wheels. That's 20-30g/km better than a comparable Audi A3 2.0 TDI or BMW 118d in manual form and 40-50g/km better if you're looking at those cars as automatics. With 16-inch wheels, the figure rises to 88g/km. Either way, this Lexus will incur zero road fund licence charges but what's really important is the way it can deliver rock bottom company car tax.
Before this car first arrived, the UK market's provision of hybrid power was limited to compact cars and rather large ones. With this improved sleeker, more efficient, quieter CT200h, Lexus continues to neatly plug the gap in between and on paper, its promised combination of driving fun and eco sensibility is certainly a very tempting one. In practice, this car is somewhat restricted by the limits of its Prius mechanicals but that doesn't stop it delivering a package that will still be compelling to many target buyers. True, a rival diesel BMW 1 Series or an Audi A3 will be better to drive. But, spec-adjusted, both will cost you more to buy, be noisier to live with, confine you to nastier cabins and cost a whole lot more to run on pricier fuel. To me, the limits of this Lexus seem a fair trade in exchange for all these benefits. This car adds up. On the balance sheet. And in your driveway.